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New Work & Video: Alabama Hills, Day 3

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My third and final day in the Alabama Hills Recreation Area was my last chance to create the composition I'd originally set out to make. When I pre-visualize a composition like I did for this trip, it can be anything from a definite, perfect imagination of what I want, to a vague concept with only the major components laid out - a "rough draft" of sorts composed in my head. I was somewhere in between for this trip. 

I knew I wanted a wide shot with the reddish-pink glow of early sunrise painting the mountains in the background with an interesting arrangement of boulders in the foreground. I envisioned what I would call an "organized mess" of boulders for the foreground. Something that communicated the disorder of this aeolian landscape but without over-complicating the composition with too much clutter. I wanted to bring attention to the interesting juxtaposition of smooth, rounded off granite in the Alabama Hills with the sharp, jagged granite of the Sierras.

Sunrise on the Sierra Nevada Mountains from the Alabama Hills Recreation Area

Sunrise over the Sierra Nevada Mountains
Fuji Velvia 50 film, 6x17 Format
Click Image for Larger View

When viewing this terrain, you can almost imagine that big chunks of granite broke off the Sierras as they rose higher and higher from the force of tectonic plates. With a deafening crash, these chunks tumbled to the desert below, their edges rounding off in the commotion, before settling at the foot of these majestic peaks. Of course, that's not really how this landscape was formed. The boulders are smoothed out by wind, and although these boulders undoubtedly originate from the same gigantic slab of granite that is the Sierra Nevadas, they didn't come "tumbling" off them like the epic scene in my head. But regardless, that's the story I wanted to paint with my images.

Although a couple of my compositions up until this point on the trip were pretty close to what I wanted, they still weren't quite "there". But on the final morning, I found a perfect location with just the vantage point and arrangement of rocks I wanted.

I started with an exposure in the very first minutes of sunrise (image shown above) with the light in that deep reddish-pink hue I envisioned. Using a couple of Lee split ND filters, I held back the exposure in the mountains and sky to capture detail throughout the scene.

Since my large-format field camera is so slow to set up and change compositions, I decided to remain in my current spot with my current composition, but try it with the morning light hitting the entire landscape. The light was much more golden than red at this late in the sunrise, but I think it brought out some great details and textures in the rocks. I like both compositions in their own right, but I have a special place in my heart for the first one (shown above). The way Fuji Velvia 50 film renders reds, magentas, and blues is just gorgeous.

Please click any of the images in this post for a larger view.

Sierra Nevada Mountains over the Alabama Hills Recreation Area

Morning on the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Alabama Hills
Fuji Velvia 50 film, 6x17 Format
Click Image for Larger View

So that concludes my recent trip to the Alabama Hills Recreation Area. I hope you've enjoyed the videos, photos, and descriptions. I plan to do many more of these on-location video series, so stay tuned and be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel!

New Work: Laguna Beach Sunset

Sunset in Laguna Beach, CAMamiya RZ67 with 50mm f/4.5 on Fuji Velvia 100 film
1/2 at f/22 - Lee 2-stop split ND filter

- Please click images for larger versions to really enjoy the detail -

Believe it or not, the best sunsets here in Orange County don't coincide with peak tourism season. I always feel bad seeing the beaches packed in June and July under overcast skies. Visitors from the other side of the country aren't aware of our "May Gray", "June Gloom", and "July Ugly Sky" (okay, maybe that last one isn't a common phrase). They have dreams of a sunny Southern California, but instead get something more akin to London.

Our best skies really come in early fall and late winter. I think it must have something to do with the seasons changing - it just brings good clouds for colorful sunsets. Not good sunbathing weather, but boy is it good for photography. Plus, the beaches are usually empty at this time, so you know, double bonus!

This last February brought some beautiful clouds that resulted in some very photogenic sunsets. Luckily, I was able to get out and shoot one of them. I opted to use my Mamiya RZ67 medium format camera as opposed to my large format 4x5. I love the process and incredible detail of 4x5, but it's just hard to run away from waves when the camera is that big and slow. The Mamiya gives me a little more room to book it when a wave comes in hot. And while I was out shooting, I was happy to show some curious teenagers how my strange "box camera" works. A lot of people might feel old using a camera that a seventeen-year-old has never even seen before, but I love it.

I used a 50mm lens for this shoot (which is considered wide-angle in the medium format world) along with my favorite high-saturation film - Fuji Velvia 100. In hindsight, I wish I'd used Velvia 50 for a warmer color palette, but the cooler color palette of my chosen Velvia 100 worked just fine.

Sunset in Laguna Beach, CA

Mamiya RZ67 with 50mm f/4.5 on Fuji Velvia 100 film
1 second at f/16 - Lee 3-stop split ND filter

Sunset in Laguna Beach, CA

Mamiya RZ67 with 50mm f/4.5 on Fuji Velvia 100 film
2 second at f/16 - Lee 1-stop & 3-stop split ND filters

Sunset in Laguna Beach, CA

Mamiya RZ67 with 50mm f/4.5 on Fuji Velvia 100 film
1 second at f/16 - Lee 1-stop & 2-stop split ND filters

Sunset in Laguna Beach, CA

Mamiya RZ67 with 50mm f/4.5 on Fuji Velvia 100 film
1 second at f/16 - Lee 1-stop & 2-stop split ND filters

Sunset in Laguna Beach, CAMamiya RZ67 with 50mm f/4.5 on Fuji Velvia 100 film
2 seconds at f/11 - Lee 1-stop & 2-stop split ND filters

New Work: Sequoia National Park – Part 2

Beetle Rock, Sequoia National Park, CA View from Beetle Rock, Sequoia National Park, CA
Shen-Hao HZX-45IIa on Ilford Delta 100 film

8 seconds at f/22 - 3-stop split ND filter

- Click any image for a larger view -

As I described in Part 1 of this post, I was having a hard time getting the shots I envisioned in the groves of Sequoia trees due to the old, dirty, partially melted snow. It just wasn't flattering to such beautiful sculptures.

But thankfully, with a little bit of scouting around, I came upon Beetle Rock, which is a large granite rock formation with a breathtaking view out to the west. At this altitude, you can see for miles when the weather is clear. Truly a stunning overlook.

On my first evening there, we had a clear sky to the west that produced some beautiful deep red hues of sunset light on the trees. Unfortunately, though, not being familiar with the area yet, I wasn't standing in the right place at the right time. So to put it simply, I squandered that light. Would have been some great color panoramas from Beetle Rock with that kind of a sunset.

But not ready to give up yet, I planned to come back to the same spot the following sunset. I was all jazzed up to shoot some panoramas on the rich color palette of Fuji Velvia film. I was comfortable with the area now, I had a rough pre-visualization of the composition I wanted, I knew when the light would be good...I had all my ducks in a row.

And then the clouds rolled in.

Bummer. I wouldn't get that deep, colorful sunset light. The clouds were too thick. It was practically overcast. But after all that work and anticipation, I decided to make the best of what nature gave me. So I pulled out the black and white film again. I may not get good color on this night, but the textures and shapes were excellent - perfect for black and whites.

I started with a horizontal, wide panorama view of the mountains to the south. The layers receding off into the background gave such a beautiful sense of distance from this high vantage point. Be sure to click for a larger version of these panos - the minute details are where these pictures really come alive.

 Beetle Rock, Sequoia National Park, CA View from Beetle Rock, Sequoia National Park, CA
Shen-Hao HZX-45IIa on Ilford Delta 100 film

1/4 at f/22 - 2-stop split ND filter

With the light fading and the clouds showing no signs of breaking up, I decided to scout around Beetle Rock in search of a composition that would make better use of the flat lighting. I needed something with a more pronounced shape. Something that could make use of the dramatic cloud cover.

Just in time, I found a gorgeous tree sprouting out of the rock itself. It's wind-sculpted shape would be the perfect element to superimpose against the cloudy sky. And the textures of the rock at its feet would give just the right amount of interest to the foreground.

I started with a horizontal panorama. I wanted to capture this tree as a regal symbol for the hardship of these high altitudes and the resilience of the organisms that battle the elements to thrive in this terrain. By positioning myself so that the tree would rise up high from the rock, reaching into the sky and blocking the sun behind it, I was able to create the image I envisioned - one that paints this tree as the noble champion of strength that it is. This became my favorite image from the whole trip.

Beetle Rock, Sequoia National Park, CA Tree at Beetle Rock, Sequoia National Park, CA
Shen-Hao HZX-45IIa on Ilford Delta 100 film

1 second at f/45 - 3-stop split ND filter

I then tried a vertical 4x5 composition of this same tree (at the top of this post). The communication was similar in this composition, but with a closer, more intimate view. This composition doesn't highlight the majesty of this tree in quite the same way as the panorama, but instead I wanted to show the granite foundation of the Sierra Nevada Mountains from which these trees sprout.